How Can We Improve Social Infrastructure?

Laura Landau, New York. 
24 June 2019

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of the book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, by Eric Klinenberg. 2018. 290 pages. Random House. Buy the book.

In Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book, Palaces for the People, he argues that investing in social infrastructure (the assets that shape our social interactions) is investing in healthier, safer, more equitable, and less polarized communities. It is an appealing promise, especially in today’s reality of increased social isolation—a topic which Klinenberg, the director of NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, has researched extensively. The book is full of beautiful stories of human connection and examples of how improving public spaces has benefitted communities socially and economically. The solution presented, to treat social infrastructure with equal import as physical infrastructure, is straightforward and hard to dispute. The why of social infrastructure is argued clearly and strongly. Where the book falls short is in the how. With limited public resources and some of our leaders more interested in building border walls that divide us (what Klinenberg calls “antisocial infrastructure”), it is often up to the civic realm to build and foster social infrastructure.  

How can we improve social infrastructure? We must take it upon ourselves to improve our public spaces and prioritize forming connections with our neighbors and community members.
Klinenberg loosely defines “social infrastructure” as the physical elements of community that act as a conduit to bring people together and build social capital. According to Klinenberg, everything from parks and libraries to public transportation and retail corridors has the potential to serve as social infrastructure. He casts a wide net so as to include all places where people can assemble, whether in public space (playgrounds, courtyards, outdoor markets), or private (coffee shops, churches). Despite this rather broad definition, Klinenberg makes clear that not all social infrastructure is created equal. Gated communities, for example, might be full of gathering spaces and resources like shared pools and gardens, but their exclusive nature limits the impact they have on the wider community. Social infrastructure at its best is accessible to all, regardless of race, language, or ability to patronize a local business. The example that is clearly Klinenberg’s favorite is the public library. In his observation of the daily goings-on in neighborhood libraries across New York City, the reader is reminded that public libraries are quite radical spaces that offer unique resources to everyone, from the affluent to the homeless. Libraries can of course be spaces to get free books and research support, but they also often serve as senior centers, offices for freelancers, after school homework clubs, spaces for social service benefit fairs, public bathrooms, free movies theaters, cooling centers, and just places to sit and get some quiet without having to pay for a cup of coffee. Above all, Klinenberg credits libraries as spaces where social connections are formed. These connections are what makes social infrastructure most valuable. They can counter feelings of isolation and loneliness, create common ground between individuals with wildly different backgrounds, and form the basis of a larger sense of belonging and collective life.  

Klinenberg also dedicates space in the book to discuss how investing in shared spaces can improve public safety. He dissects the popular, but disputed, “broken windows” theory and how it has shaped policing, and uses multiple examples to demonstrate that investing in social infrastructure like green spaces and community gardens has more benefits than many traditional crime prevention programs. Rather than thinking about how lack of maintenance of shared spaces leads to crime, he asserts that if residents feel a sense of ownership of their community, they are more likely to invest their own time and energy in maintaining it. These spaces will then be frequented by community members, leading to more of what Jane Jacobs calls “eyes on the street”, increasing accountability and therefore decreasing crime. Klinenberg draws on examples such as the Pruitt-Igoe public housing failure and research from the University of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society on greening vacant lots to show how these programs and policies impact people on the individual, family, and neighborhood level. He also draws a line connecting green space and public health, pushing community gardens and walkable streets as solutions, and criticizing alternative efforts like replacing corner stores (key social infrastructure in many neighborhoods) with “bodega” machines. Finally, he presents the crucial role of social infrastructure in disaster response and recovery, looking primarily at a church in Houston which organized post-Hurricane Harvey to provide members and non-members alike with housing, food, baby supplies, and other necessities. At times, Palaces for the Peoplereads as though Klinenberg is simply listing hot-button societal challenges and presenting social infrastructure as the solution. But the end result is the realization that improving social infrastructure is in fact a key ingredient in addressing any issue. If nothing else, improving the spaces where we gather and encouraging more social interaction and civic engagement can’t hurt.

The question that remains at the end of the book is what we can do to support the building and improving of social infrastructure. Currently, investing in failing physical infrastructure is one of the only things that politicians on both ends of the spectrum agree on, but getting leaders on the right excited about investing in public resources and social services is a longshot. We can and should be pushing our local elected officials to recognize the importance of social infrastructure—many already do—but we cannot expect the government alone to turn around the trajectory of our declining social infrastructure. Nor can we expect the private sector to solve everything. Although many tech companies claim to be looking into tools for building social capital, online platforms cannot replace face-to-face interactions. Further, as Klinenberg notes, many of these companies are themselves guilty of building private infrastructure like fancy campuses for employees-only that cut across communities and enforce existing divisions.  

The Bronx is blooming. Photo: IOBY

The only way forward, I contend, is to take it upon ourselves to improve our public spaces and prioritize forming connections with our neighbors and community members. Recognizing the local environment as a shared resource and taking care of it is a powerful act, and a way of connecting to the community and even the entire city. Author Jami Attenberg recently wrote for Curbed, about her move from New York City to New Orleans, and the social connection and accountability she felt living in a smaller city. She writes, “My awareness of public issues has increased exponentially because they impact me and my neighbors on a day-to-day basis. Local politics is everything here…I try to participate in this community as best I can, whether through contributing time or money. I even clean the catch basin on my street before it rains. The smallest of gestures reverberates in a city this size”. Of course it is possible to find this kind of concentrated care in larger cities as well—even New York City has hyper local governing bodies like community gardens and block associations—but their work is often hard to see if you don’t go looking. Klinenberg does indeed recognize civic engagement as a key form of social infrastructure, noting that civic groups “provide physical places where people can assemble, programs that bring people together on a regular basis, and local leaders who become advocates for the community” (p. 163). What he fails to mention is that when civic groups make it a part of their mission to improve their local environment, thereby improving social infrastructure, the effect is doubly impactful. 

In New York City alone, there are over 800 civic groups actively caring for the local environment. Half of these groups are informal, operating without nonprofit status, and many are entirely volunteer-run with no budget at all. The work of these civic stewardship groups often goes unrecognized, but it is nonetheless important. When a group of neighbors get together to clean and mulch the tree-pits on their street, or to advocate for turning a vacant lot into a community garden, they are both improving social infrastructure and reaping the benefits of it.  

Sustainable Flatbush healing garden. Photo: IOBY
New York City Park Slope Civic Council. Photo: IOBY

These groups also play a key role filling in the gaps of government support. Recently, in the longest government shutdown in US history, civic groups are stepped in to clean National Parks and maintain other shared resources that normally rely on federal labor. Civic environmental stewardship groups provide space for people to get to know one another and beautify their community in the process, creating a sense of social connection and a feeling of ownership and place attachment. Klinenberg lays out a strong argument for the importance of social infrastructure, but does not presently address who is responsible for creating and maintaining these resources. It is one thing to focus on the physical places that make up social infrastructure, but it is perhaps even more critical to understand, visualize, and support the social organizations that care for these places. By recognizing the important work of existing stewardship groups and encouraging others to emulate their efforts, we can take the matter of building social infrastructure into our own hands and create the places where we want to live.  

Laura Landau
New York

On The Nature of Cities

Buy it at your local bookstore. But if you but it online, click below and TNOC will get a small donation.

Laura Landau

About the Writer:
Laura Landau

Laura is Project Manager for STEW-MAP who focuses on the groups in New York City working to conserve, manage, transform, monitor, advocate for, and educate about the local environment.

Laura Landau

Laura Landau

Laura is currently pursuing a PhD in geography at Rutgers University. She previously served as the project manager for the Stewardship Mapping Assessment Project (STEW-MAP) at the NYC Urban Field Station. Her research focuses on the civic groups that care for the local environment, and on the potential for urban environmental stewardship to strengthen communities and make them more resilient to disaster and disturbance. She holds a BA in urban studies from Barnard College and an MS in city and regional planning from Pratt Institute.

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